Even as a massive hurricane was laying waste to the island where my father was born and raised, I knew instinctively what the real problem was going to be. Not a shaky power grid being demolished by Category 4 winds or already impoverished citizens — American citizens — living in the rubble of what were once their modest homes.
No, the real problem was obvious: lazy Puerto Rican truck drivers refusing to do their jobs.
“Now the roads are cleared, communication is starting to come back, we need their truck drivers,” President Trump said Tuesday. “Their drivers have to start driving trucks. We have to do that, so at a local level they have to give us more help.”
As it happens, my father was a Puerto Rican truck driver. He worked all night, first on the loading docks and then driving all over New England. And if he hasn’t delivered a single gallon of water or tanker of diesel fuel since Hurricane Maria hit the island, that’s only because he worked until he quite literally broke his back.
Lazy? My father was so lazy that he worked two trucking jobs at once. One of them was delivering bundles of the New Haven Register; now I sit in the newsroom at The Boston Globe.
“I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico — you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico,” said the actual, honest-to-God president of the entire country (including Puerto Rico). At an appearance near the San Juan airport, Trump threw a roll of paper towels into a crowd of people like the guy with a T-shirt cannon at a basketball game and told one victim to “have a good time.”
Have a good time?
It might be instructive to remember that the president, before he was the president and even before he was a reality TV star, was a white landlord from New York City in an era when white landlords from New York City were happy to openly complain about Puerto Ricans the way people complain about fruit flies in the kitchen. They don’t know what caused them, but it’s incredibly difficult to get them to leave. Puerto Ricans got blamed for everything from stolen cars to rat infestations. Apparently we’re now adding “feeble federal response to devastating hurricanes” to the list.
So the president’s comments Tuesday morning, which appeared to reference an imaginary Puerto Rican trucker strike, barely rated as a surprise. Finding someone fictitious to blame for your administration’s failings is easier than owning up to your mistakes.
There is no strike, of course. The president was echoing debunked reports in dubious right-wing media outlets that falsely claimed the island’s truck drivers had refused to help in the wake of the storm.
The reality, as Air Force Colonel Michael Valle told the Huffington Post, is somewhat different. “There should be zero blame on the drivers. They can’t get to work, the infrastructure is destroyed, they can’t get fuel themselves, and they can’t call us for help because there’s no communication.” The drivers’ own families, in many cases, have no food or water and no way to call family on or off the island, Valle said.
The roads remain demonstrably not cleared.
The drivers are exactly as equipped to help as my father is, and he’s watching “Judge Judy” in his apartment 1,600 miles away and hammering the redial button on his old touch-tone phone, hoping his sister in Aguadilla is alive to answer.
But hey, sorry to bust your budget, Mr. President. Thanks so much for the paper towels.